God of Comics – Gail Simone’s Red Sonja
Red Sonja is a weird character.
That’s not to say that the character itself is weird. It’s simple enough – she’s the distaff version of Conan the Barbarian, and even shares a world with him (and Cthulhu, because Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft were pen pals and fans of one another). She started as a renaissance-era warrior before Marvel Comics re-imagined her as a Conan-era fighter, combining her with Dark Agnes, another Robert E. Howard creation, and moving her into the dawn of human civilization.
So, that’s easy enough. So maybe I’m wrong – it’s not the character, but rather the interface that character has with our world that’s weird.
And I don’t mean comics. Comics are a form of medium we use to tell stories, and they have strengths and weaknesses just like any other form of media. There are limitations to books, movies, television shows, video games, comics – any and every means we’ve invented to tell stories.
What’s interesting about Red Sonja is her persistence. Like Conan, she has no definitive narrative, no single tale we can point to and say “that there is the story of Red Sonja.” Contrast that with other iconic characters: Batman’s parents were shot in an alley so he fights the crime and the Joker is usually involved, Mario rescues Princess Peach Toadstool from Bowser and an army of turtles, Jack Bauer is a government agent who was trained to fight terrorists and does so no matter what the cost, Rick Blaine plays politics and tries to stay neutral while running a night club in Nazi controlled Casablanca, the three Musketeers battle the enemies of France and protect the monarchy from the machinations of the Church.
Now, tell me, what does Red Sonja do? Who does she fight? What’s the iconic tale of her character, the journey? Who does she fight? What is her purpose, her drive? What is she after? Like Conan, she is a passive wanderer through her own world, but an active power in her own life. She doesn’t seem to want anything except her own freedom and to be able to live with herself, whatever that entails and whatever that costs.
She’s died, been resurrected, had a descendant claim her name; been chosen by a goddess, lost the favor of that goddess, watched that goddess die; been a queen, a peasant, a pirate; been a concubine, a prisoner, a resistance leader, a gladiator. She’s been chaste, sexually active, reckless, careful. There’s few things she keeps from one incarnation to the next save her red hair, independence, and capacity for violence.
And yet… and yet…
There’s something that rings true about the She-Devil with a Sword, something about a red haired warrior woman cutting a swath through pre-history to define herself that just feels right. The sword, the bikini armor, the independent attitude and sense of power. There’s a swirling potential for myth-building here: a resonant character concept and rich setting that lends itself to almost any sort of story.
Enter Gail Simone, and what is it, exactly, that Gail Simone does best? What has that name come to mean when applied as a verb?
One of the larger mistakes DC Comics made – during a period when they were making a lot of mistakes – was firing Gail Simone. Other companies had to have been calling her immediately, and we got an incredible run on Tomb Raider out of it, one of the better Wolverine stories in recent memory, and a strong contender for the definitive Red Sonja epic.
In these eighteen issues you get a definitive story, beginning to end, that captures perfectly who this person is, what she accomplishes, and what she fights – and it leaves a loose enough time line that anyone could insert a story into this narrative and contribute to the greater whole, or continue it, or re-tell the beginning. This is fertile myth-building that sets a strong core personality and setting while establishing a thematic conceptual foe that Red Sonja spends her entire life battling, and it is her continued victory that defines her as a character.
What is this concept that she strives her whole life against? We’re going to go through each of the three issues arc to answer exactly that.
The first arc deals with Sonya past and present. We join her as she’s been enslaved and forced to fight by a vast and corrupt empire, perfecting her killing skills in the pits until only her and one other warrior remain – a woman named Dark Annisia. They’re forced to fight for years, forging a bond and a trust that allows them to survive where no one else can.
Eventually, the two of them are rescued by a kingdom that is at war with this empire. The old emperor escapes, vanishing into the wastes, but the king finds Sonya and Annisia and has them cared for. As they recover, both of them declare each other sisters. Once they are hale they depart freely to make their own lives.
There’s a sense that these two are equals in every respect, forming a bond born of mutual respect and trauma. They survived a horror together, and they are as blood to one another. We get the sense of time passing, of Sonya and Annisia both becoming legends of their era, and when the kingdom that rescues her asks Sonya to return and rescue them from an invading horde of demons she comes gladly.
What she does not know until she gets there, though, is that this army is being led by Dark Annisia. The two of them fight and Dark Annisia wins, revealing that her army isn’t there to conquer, but to quarantine; their old saviors have been exposed to a plague, a terrible disease that Sonya herself has caught, and that it was made her weak.
Dark Annisia’ monsters tend to the sick and dying as she wishes her sister off, allowing Sonya to go make peace with her gods and meet death on her own terms. It’s here that we see where Sonya came from: how bandits overcame and slaughtered her family in front of her, how she managed to escape and take revenge from the woods, how she raised herself and how the gladiatorial pits perfected the skills her childhood had forced upon her.
It should be heartbreaking, but Gail chooses to make Sonya’s story one of hope – of a child who is battered but never broken, a young girl who rises from tragedy to take control of her own life. And as she lies, dying, she is rescued by a band of would-be warriors from the plague ridden kingdom who reveal a terrible truth to her: that she is not sick at all. She has been poisoned.
They give her the cure and nurse her back to health. As she recovers she teaches them to fight, and even takes down a group of bandits, proving that even a weakened Sonya is a danger to be respected. Initially, she suspects that Annisia may be responsible for her poisoning, but she dismisses this out of hand – Annisia would not do this to her, and there did seem something wrong with Annisia when they met.
In truth, it was the prince of the kingdom she was supposed to save. He has poisoned his people in a misguided attempt to impress his father, but neither plan or poison are his. He and Dark Annisia both were pawns meant to weaken a kingdom and two warriors that the old empire feared; both are made nothing more than a means of destroying an enemy that an emperor knew he could not defeat on the field of combat.
Sonya is, of course, able to free Annisia, kill the emperor, and help the people of the kingdom find the cure and leadership that they need. The prince isn’t evil, but he is open to suggestion and lacks the confidence necessary to take responsibility for his own life and the life of others. Annisia isn’t evil, but haunted and cursed and finds redemption through her sister.
The emperor is killed, and the world is made a better place.
In just six issues we’re given a host of complex relationships and histories, more than enough reason to get invested in this character and her world. Sonya is deceptively deep; she comes across as very simple and her ethos truly is, but the means by which she inflicts her ethos on the world around her makes her complex.
Six issues of complex political machinations and varying degrees of evil, the morality of the ancient world contrasted with our own, and a heroic figure who rejects expectation to redefine the best of what her world can be. It’s a fantastic start that firmly roots this character and her world, a quick read that can be delved into, studied, and discussed.
It’s a hell of a hook, and moves us headlong into the Second Arc.
Time has passed. The legend of Red Sonja has grown, and she has parted from Dark Annisia and gone down into an Egyptian analogue at the request of their Pharaoh. Seems the dude is dying and he wants to throw the best party ever, so he’s going to make Sonja an offer – go and get him the best of everything and make herself rich and free every one of his slaves, or turn him down and watch all of those slaves die when he does. Her choice.
Sonya chooses to take the job and heads out to collect the best cook, beast master, astrology, courtesan, dancer and swordsman that her world has to offer, and ends up having to deal with the circumstances that each of these people finds themselves in. Each offers their own challenges for the She-Devil with a Sword, forcing her to take stock of her own circumstances as much as theirs.
The cook is a relatively straight-forward rescue mission: he’s been captured by cannibals, and they’re forcing him to cook people for them. She sneaks in to their camp to rescue him, only to find out that he’s quite happy where he is – his captors are cannibals, yes, but they’re cannibals with a palette. Problem is, there’s other monsters out there with an even greater palette, and they have no care for his culinary skills or his new friends as anything other than meat. When they come for dinner, he wisely leaves with the She-Devil.
Sonya is used to rescuing others, but she isn’t used to the idea of strength not coming from a sword. The quiet confidence that the cook has mystifies her, and his unwillingness to sleep with her is something she has difficulty accepting. She’s not used to having her worldviews challenged or shaped by others.
This really comes to account when she meets the best swordsman in the world. She sees in him a reflection of herself, the casual arrogance with which they both meet the world. When she asks him to go with her he challenges her, and will go nowhere with her unless she can defeat him. So, naturally, the two of them fight and he beats her easily. He even makes a bit of a fool of her until she realizes two things: she’s psyching herself out and that she’s dueling with him by his rules. When she fights him on her own terms, she trounces him easily.
We all learn a valuable lesson: if you allow someone else to set the conditions of your victory and your fight, you will lose. You need to frame your own life and your own skill, you need to be able to define where you stand. The swordsman accepts her victory and goes with her, though he, too, will not sleep with her.
She faces an entirely new problem with the beast master, a sour misogynist who mistreats his animals and dislikes Sonya for their shared history, a person who fights for those who cannot fight for themselves. He won’t go with her and his animals make him impossible to drag by force, and this puts her at a severe definition when dealing with him. Things get so bad that he manages to imprison her, and it’s here that she learns that his apprentice is the true source of his power, so she frees herself, kills him, and takes the apprentice with her.
The lesson is clear: you can’t deal with evil, not really. You can’t change people that don’t want to be changed, and putting yourself on the line for people that only want to do you harm will get you hurt. There are alternatives, thankfully, and putting yourself at risk for those that want or need your help is sometimes necessary, because evil is real and never goes away on its own.
Look at what happens with the astrologer, for example. He’s been captured by a church, who plan to kill him because they don’t like what he has to say. They’ve crafted a giant church to intimidate people with superstitious awe, and for a time that works on Red Sonya – a woman who has faced demons and dragons, survived slave pits, and overcome death itself.
Churches were actually constructed to engender that sense of awe in people. It’s why they were always so large and expansive – not just to allow in worshipers, but to keep people on their knees. Religion is a powerful political tool for those who want to make themselves powerful and inflict their version of truth on people, and Sonya nearly falls prey to it until she remembers that she is Red Sonya, the She-Devil with a Sword, and she frees the astrologer before the church can burn him to death for apostasy.
If the cook, beastmaster, swordsman, and astrologer make Sonya question the world around her, though it is the Courtesan that makes her question herself. Gail Simone has always supported the idea of people building one another rather than getting caught in rivalries that ultimately destroy all concerned. With the Courtesan, Sonya discovers that there are different kinds of battlefields and different battles to be fought.
She also discovers that the Courtesan came from a village that neighbored her own – the two of them might even be related. There’s a simple joy that both of them get from recognizing the strength of the other, and both of them are made better by recognizing and respecting what the other has to offer. There’s a lovely parallel between the two of them that respects sex, even as a commodity.
There’s even a subplot in this arc dealing with sex, and how no one wants to sleep with Sonya. Although she’s has been presented as a sex object by some writers, Sonya herself is belligerent to the point of excess; she is a goodperson, but not really a nice one, and the people she’s saving tend to be a lot more interested in hygiene than she is. It’s a cute distraction that pays off with the Courtesan and the climax.
And speaking of the climax… Red Sonya returns to not-Egypt and delivers her charges. The Pharaoh, naturally, has no interest in granting his slaves freedom – he needs them to serve him in the afterlife. He tries to have Sonya killed, which goes about as well as you’d expect. What we learn from him is how greed can dehumanize, and being very wealthy can make one view those not so lucky as less-than.
It’s a powerful statement with many real-world analogies, ranging from the recent HIV-medication price hike to the lies surrounding Planned Parenthood, how those that have taken and inherited all the wealth often do not understand the pain they inflict on those who do not. This story is one of hope, bargains made in bad faith but held to task anyway, of greed and corruption forced to make good, on consequences paid, and how it is necessary to hold anyone you make a bargain with to their word.
This arc also gives us a wider view of Red Sonya’s world, the peoples that live in it and the places that it contains. We see enough of this place to guess the scope of it; how vast her world, and how much of an impact she’d had on it merely by the way that people respond to her. It opens up a host of story possibilities and characters that Gail Simone is kind enough to hint at, leaving a host of material for other writers to work with, or for herself to return to.
Which brings us to the third and final arc of the Gail Simone run.
The first arc dealt with Sonya’s personal identity and how it was crafted, while the second defined the world that Sonya lives in and her place in it. The third is a little trickier.
It starts with her killing a wizard, which is standard fantasy fare. She’s cursed in the process, though, losing the ability to forgive anyone for anything. That sounds like a small enough thing until you really think about it: we forgive other people and ourselves for doing idiotic things all the time, and we measure our responses to things done to us via proportional responses that are, in turn, tied to the concept of forgiveness.
This curse removes all sense of scale from her. She’s unable to forgive even the smallest slight, and unable to respond with anything except murder. All sense of scale is lost along her her ability to forgive. She is wise enough to see the end consequence of this curse – she will become exactly the sort of monster that she typically fights, and she is unable to forgive herself for the potential beast she could become. Driven by the same stubborn need to fight evil that has seen her through every fight so far, she burns her palms so that she can never take up a sword again.
Sonya has given her life to the blade, and defines herself by her skill. She has no tribe, no blood family – all she is comes from her skill with a sword, and yet she is willing to sacrifice everything she is to keep from becoming something that she’d despise. Her life and her agency are her own, and she is entirely unwilling to bow down to anyone’s attempts to control or define her, no matter the cost.
A few different parties seek her out during this time. One is the elder brother of the wizard who cursed her; one is an alchemist with a gift for fire making; another are the villagers who she rescued from the wizard; and the last is the final remaining bandit from the band that slew her village; and the last is Dark Annisia, here to care for her sister in her time of need. Through the presence of all three, Sonya is able to break the curse, heal her hands, and reclaim her life, and in the process learns that forgiving others allows her to free herself, that people change and lives move on.
It would be a powerful note to leave on, for a character who lives and dies by her sword and skill to understand that there are few absolutes, that people can change and that forgiveness has a power in and of itself. It’s not an ending, though, and it doesn’t tie the world together, or give the story the sense of closure it deserves. And so…
We catch up with Sonya again, this time in the aftermath of an orgy. A handful of priestesses approach her and offer her a job – they need protection. It is their holy task to protect a library, one of the greatest of its kind in that old world, and there is a local monarch that would like to burn it to the ground. This monarch is a matriarch, and she finds these priestesses and their order abhorrent.
Her reasons are something that we might recognize from our own world; she thinks that educated women are dangerous and forget their place, and she needs to make sure they cannot rise. She sees other independent women as rivals, and knowledge as something to be feared.
Those who wish to stabilize their power often attempt to destroy education, recognizing that knowledge leads to more knowledge and that new ideas could challenge the ones that allow them to hold power in the first place. The problem with this line of thinking is that it is entropic – when one stops learning one degrades the knowledge they already hold, becoming more and more lost and unable to deal with reality.
Further, this matriarch’s misogyny is rooted in the idea that all women must compete, that all women are rivals and that true friendship is impossible among the distaff gender. She needs this order to be destroyed because these believes these women threaten her power and her beliefs, their very existence a danger to her.
Sonya, who is illiterate, doesn’t see the value of books. Her recommendation is to leave the library behind, and for the priestesses to save themselves. They refuse to do this, but she’s taken the job and finds herself defending books and scrolls from the fiery end the matriarch has demanded. She uses something she learned from a book to win a battle she thought she couldn’t, turning a child’s fable into solid practice that sees three opponents dead.
And during her recovery, she learns to read and write. She learns the value of literacy and ideas, and becomes more – Red Sonja matures. We’re shown how injury and age affects her but how she remains dangerous nonetheless, and we’re given an ending that still lends itself to further stories but closes off this part of Sonya’s life.
Gail Simone has defined Sonya’s nemesis not as an empire, but as entropy – the idea of things winding down and being locked away. Red Sonja becomes an agent of change in her world, a hero that allows other people to grow and other people to hope. She’s more than a blood-drenched killer, but a person that fights so that others can make whatever choices they want and become whatever they need.
It’s a powerful tale, the sort of thing that can and should be studied. There’s multiple parallels to the real world, with a strong connection to many ethical and moral issues. With every step Sonya lives her life and asks only that others do the same, and she will fight to the death to keep the agency of herself and others from falling victim to those that would persecute and denigrate others in the name of their self-righteousness. It’s kind of amazing.
Yes, the artwork is beautiful. It’s Walter Geovani – what do you expect? The man is a phenomenal talent, and giving him the proper tale only makes his artwork stronger. This is the perfect blend of artist and writer, and it’s an absolute masterpiece of storytelling, from beginning to end.
Given everything that we were given from this run, we can only thank Gail Simone for what she’s done, and hope that one day she returns to this world and character.